Over the course of the last decade, we have seen any number of people go off to Germany for higher education at various universities that offer virtually tuition-free programmes. I wonder if these people ever stop to think where the funding for their expenses is coming from. I hope they do, but then one would have to assume that such people are perfectly fine with the thought that they’re basically preying off of the pockets of the German tax-payer - a favour of the German government. ‘Government.’ Keep that one in mind.

Most people, when they deliberate an extended stay in a foreign country, rely heavily on feedback from friends and family, amassed through prior experiences, for the outcome of their decision. I can respect that. But I’d like to evidence to you why even the sincere collation of a lifetime of experiences in a country is rendered pale in comparison to what comes through the power of sociological analysis. In a single article, I endeavour to make you understand Germany more concretely, more intimately, without having been there, than you ever could through anecdotal knowledge alone.

The works of German sociologist Max Weber are often noted for their motif of a certain very obscure concept termed ‘elective affinities.’ Let me explain: have you ever been struck by how, if you encounter people with whom you’re sharing a major ‘elective’ experience of your life (something you’ve opted to do) and begin to develop an affinity with them – at your job, for example - all sorts of ‘coincidences’ from your earlier life, and instances of how you also think alike, seem to appear? As a fictional reenactment of Weber in the novel Durkheim is Dead! explains, “certain social groups and interests have a tendency to seek each other out.” That’s because, much like elective life experiences can be traced back to interests, interests can be traced back to something even more intrinsic to the self: ideas.

Ideas form the core of both the individual and society. The French philosopher Raymond Aron in his masterpiece The Opium of The Intellectuals remarked that we don’t recognize the significance of influence that intellectuals – in as much as the current of ideas in a society is the latter’s domain - often have. In the long-term, even politicians are only really “the disciples of scholars or writers.”

So let me get right to the heart of the matter. In all of my studies, there is one part of Germany’s history that I think is more profoundly, undeniably reflective of who they are as a people than any other event. Conveniently, it’s also one I find to be the most interesting. Fasten your seat-belts, we’re going back to the late nineteenth century. Our destination: The German Methodenstreit.

In the early 1880s, economics as we know it today was struggling to attain status as a ‘science of human action.’ On the one hand, at the University of Vienna in Austria, the eventual founder of the Austrian School of Economics Carl Menger was championing his methodology of studying the social sciences that was based on an abstract, ‘deductive’ approach, where the forte of economics was in the formulation of general theories (in this case, of ‘human action’) that were deemed universally valid (think: ideas.) Nearby, in Germany, at the University of Berlin, Gustav von Schmoller was leading the Historical School, which based understanding of human action on a pragmatic, ‘inductive’ approach - the study of history, collection of historical material and formulation of intervention schemes deemed appropriate for the people based on the accumulated information (think: experiences.)

As such, the Austrian School advocated a minimalist government, while the Historical School championed a welfare state, based of course, on interventionist policies.

They clashed. Menger (Austrian) wrote a book on his methodology that rejected historicism. Schmoller (German) reacted with contemptuous review, prompting Menger to follow-up with what was described as a ‘ruthless demolition’ of the former’s argument. This series of exchanges, soon taken up by the students of the two leaders, engendered what would be known as the Methodenstreit - or ‘method dispute’ - that escalated into a hostility of such unequaled degree that the consequences underpin the history and political and social life of Germany to this day.

Counterintuitive as it may initially seem, what Schmoller was trying to do was not the mark of a responsible intellectual - intellectuals devise theories and then acquiesce to their limited powers as human beings and leave it at that. Schmoller wanted himself and his school to take it upon themselves to gather every single detail of material and become the ‘all-knowing’ guardians of the welfare of the people. In other words, he wanted to play God. But when God’s seat is already taken, what’s the next best thing? You guessed it. Government.

“This is what all the champions of authoritarianism, government omnipotence, and “welfare” policies have always done. They blame economics for being “abstract” and advocate a “visualizing” mode of dealing with the problems involved. They emphasize that matters in this field are too complicated to be described in formulas and theorems. They assert that the various nations and races are so different from one another that their actions cannot be comprehended by a uniform theory; there are as many economic theories required as there are nations and races.”

(Ludwig Von Mises, The Historical Setting of the Austrian School of Economics, pg. 13)


n    The author runs Scholars by Profession, a local research-initiative.

    Facebook: facebook.com/scholarsbyprofession